The idea of Return to Sender is very simple. Photographer and retoucher, Sipke Visser sent envelopes containing a picture, a stamped addressed envelope and a handwritten letter asking for people to respond to the picture; 'Write whatever like something about the letter, yourself, the weather. About where you are, who you are, or where you'd like to be. Or send me a picture, anything...'
The book consists of three parts; the pictures Visser sent out, the responses he got, and the correspondence he entered into as a result of these responses. The first thing you notice is how Visser's pictures recede into the background; they become a kind of visual muzak that is secondary to the responses that are made. Instead, the responses are what make the book, a vernacular critique of Visser's vernacular snapshot photographs.
Picture 93 is a fox dressed in bling and surrounded by gold handbags. Visser's first attempt to send it out failed and it was returned to sender due to insufficient postage. The next attempt did not fail. The one word message Visser was sent was 'Disgusting!' and the picture was ripped into tiny little pieces. So we are getting an added layer here, a vernacular response that ends up being reinterpreted as a kind of found photography.
Visser's ninety-second picture (a power station) received a conversational reply from a cock-breeding fisherman, a man who clearly enjoyed nothing more than sharing his life story with whoever would listen. And in this case, it was Visser who was doing the listening. Visser and the fisherman got into correspondence and next thing you know, the fisherman is sending over pictures of a fishing boat and fighting cocks to add to Visser's eclectic collection. Again, a new kind of album is being made organically, one where snapshot meets snapshot, where Visser takes us on a journey to the centre of the vernacular earth and back again.
What people see in the photographs or want from the photographs also forms part of the project. One correspondent asks that if Visser were to send another photograph it should be '…anything but foliage, for example maybe a piece of fruit that resembles a human face or a meerkat.'
There are responses from other photographers, from a designer (who Visser invites out for a drink), fast car aficionados and a person who writes 'I am afraid I could not accept pictures of Boxing.' Many of the correspondents make the assumption that Visser is a student and the project part of his studies, others analyse the pictures in isolation. 'But I hope you don’t think it is art,' writes G.S. 'I cannot understand how an unmade bed, or half a dissected cow, or a pool of urine could ever be considered art.'
Religious propaganda, Lovefilm vouchers and other tokens are sent to Visser. He gets a hyperactive note from a correspondent who asks, 'Sipke are you an angel?...... Or perhaps a friend of the mysterious Bad Person?' --> No xxx mmm who knows your secret?'
And that is the question to ask of the book? What is its secret? Does it have a secret? It's not in the pictures (he sent out 500 of them) which never quite gel and come second to the responses he got. But at the same time, it's not in the responses he got; there aren't enough of them, though the ones he does have are immensely charming and engaging. However, there is something interesting happening in Return to Sender and it is to do with how people see and understand photographs, something that can be extended into broader visual culture. It's that 'something' that makes Return to Sender interesting despite its excess.
Colin Pantall is a UK-based writer and photographer. He is a contributing writer for the British Journal of Photography and a Senior Lecturer in Photography at the University of Wales, Newport. http://colinpantall.blogspot.com